Choosing Gratitude

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He was a small, square, German dwarf of a man, complete with a bald pate surrounded by small white curls. A fishing companion from years ago (and a former parishioner), he comes to mind whenever I think about giving thanks. If there is a gratitude hall of fame, my old friend occupies a place of honor in that pantheon.

A week of Canadian fishing often is a culinary endurance test when a group of otherwise moderately sexist men agree to cook for themselves. I must hasten to note the exception of a fishing companion who planned menus for such trips with as much dedication as he devoted to maintaining his lures and reels, spending months on such delicacies as dried chili con carne or beef tips to be reconstituted in the boiling pot. He is the exception that proves the above-mentioned rule.

If the fishing was good, we might eat fish and some variety of potato dish twice a day for five of the six days (and often for breakfast as well). During such a week our joints worked better, our skin was softer, our hair took on a fish oil sheen, and everything about us (let the reader understand) took on the odor of walleye, pike and perch.

If the fishing wasn’t so good, as happened often enough, we were reduced to living on the provisions we packed with us. By the end of such a week we were left with some version of hot dogs and beans (sometimes for breakfast as well). It should come as no surprise that at the end of such a week the first meal back in world was a large restaurant steak with all the trimmings.

No matter what the dish, when we had finished eating my companion of blessed memory always pronounced the benediction — “Gee, that was good!” The first time I heard him say it, I think, was after a modestly lackluster lunch before we had caught any fish. I looked at my companions, veterans of previous trips, who all smiled and nodded without comment. I thought to myself, “No, it wasn’t particularly good. I wonder what’s the joke?”

One of my other companions took me aside later and explained. Our German friend had been conscripted into Hitler’s infantry as a young man. He had survived the horrors of war and was among survivors who found themselves soon to be trapped by the Russians with no hope of escape. He went with little or no food during much of that harrowing experience. And he was on one of the last transports to leave the area before the Russians closed in. He never heard from any of his trapped comrades again.

He was picked up by Allied forces and was briefly a POW. He once said that he ate better in the American prison camp than he had ever eaten in the Wehrmacht. As a result of his experience, he promised himself that he would never complain about food again. Instead he would be grateful no matter what was placed in front of him. He knew how bad things could be and how privileged he was to be alive, well, and…eating.

“Gee, that was good.”

His modest prayer of thanksgiving signaled the conclusion of every meal when our little band gathered. It was a reminder of our own wealth and privilege in a world of want. More than that, I learned so much about choosing to be grateful. Many of those meals were not “good” in any objective culinary sense. But that was hardly the point. He taught the rest of us that we could choose our perspective — we could choose to be grateful, or not.

That choice was the secret to his contentment. My friend was not without his struggles and sore points. I know now that he suffered from a lifetime of PTSD that produced inky dark depressions and led him to wonder most of the time if he was worthy of anyone’s love (especially from God). But his choice to give thanks in all things often pulled him out of the darkness and back into life. And he could reason himself into a sense of God’s grace by remembering the goodness put in front of him at the table.

“Gee, that was good.”

Not that I am referring to being in need,” Paul writes to the Philippian Christians in chapter four, “for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” When I read Paul’s words, I think of my old fishing companion. He understood Paul’s perspective — “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” Having plenty is good, but having gratitude is better. “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need,” Paul continues, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

People will quote that last line of Paul’s paragraph as a sort of mantra for muddling through. It only works, however, in the context of gratitude in all things. In that context, we can do all that is needful for a faithful life. I will never have a place in the Gratitude Hall of Fame. I am far too likely to complain, even when things are better than good. But I do better because of my friend’s witness and practice. I know that I can choose to be grateful no matter what is placed before me.

We observed a Covid-Thanksgiving. It was lonely and a bit empty, though we tried to make the best of it. But we still gathered in love and gratitude. We had a day of creating and cooking and cleaning (and a modest vegan feast, which was delightfully delicious). We prayed for our family and friends and prepared to continue to journey in joy and hope. In this strange time of rage, retribution, and uncertainty, gratitude may be something we could choose together.

“Gee, that was good.”

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